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With Online Spreadsheets, Mutual Aid Networks Are Keeping People Fed During Coronavirus

Across the internet, home cooks are finding ways to provide meals for others

Hands pressing down on circles of dough on a cutting board. Luuuusa/Shutterstock

“Please list any particular cuisines that you are used to cooking (e.g. Somalian, Italian, Vegan)?” This line came near the end of a volunteering form I filled out a few weeks ago, and it made me pause: My kitchen has all the essentials for Chinese, Italian, Thai, and Japanese cuisines, but could I make a convincing or comforting katsudon for someone who grew up with it? Can something I cook be both filling and uplifting if its eater doesn’t know who made it? As a volunteer for the East Bay Mutual Aid Network, I will soon be cooking meals alone in my apartment to be delivered to unknown people in need around me. Other volunteers are matching aid volunteers with aid requests, and I will be tasked with no-contact delivery. I might never meet the person or family receiving my help, but I’d love to make them mushroom risotto.

It’s increasingly difficult, from the insides of our homes under shelter-in-place orders or social-distancing recommendations, to see the organizing happening across the country as COVID-19 penetrates our communities. But a quick dive into some public Google Docs reveals thousands of living spreadsheets with dozens of contributors at any moment, all coming together to provide mutual aid — a term from anarchist circles for community-provided care and support.

Signal chats with hundreds of texters, email chains, Zoom calls, and Google spreadsheets keep running tabs on who is offering to volunteer and who is in need, matching individuals and organizations. These mutual aid organizations are hoping to get essentials like food and groceries into the hands of not only those who cannot physically shop themselves, but people who are now out of work and cannot afford necessities, especially considering the steep prices of grocery delivery. Mutual aid organizations are creating new foodways of radical empathy.

The vast majority of these networks, whether formal spreadsheets or more informal Facebook groups or as the result of neighborly conversations, are seeing people make grocery runs on behalf of immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable neighbors: “I am in need of eggs bread and milk [...] by the time I can get a ride to the store the shelves are empty,” reads one very common request out of Sacramento. The New York City-based United Against Coronavirus has a grocery delivery spreadsheet in which city residents can list their needs and anyone can sign up to bring supplies to their doors. In Seattle, the Mutual Aid Solidarity Network had to close requests for grocery delivery on March 20 to give their volunteers time to fulfill all requests.

Yet COVID-19 seems to be affecting us in waves. First come the blanket economic effects: the layoffs, the closures, the unending demand to meet rent. And then, as more people fall ill and more people find themselves in need of a social safety net, the needs switch from financial aid to home-cooked meals. These meals provide one less thing to worry about for those still holding stressful and potentially dangerous jobs at grocery stores and restaurants. For so many of us struggling with depression now, home-cooked meals — whether by family or strangers — make us feel cared about; foods can help us feel less alone.

In hard-hit Louisiana, New Orleans Mutual Aid Society volunteers are prepping around 60 meals per day, mostly for out-of-work African-American residents. Each volunteer prepares five servings and is connected with another network of volunteer drivers; the cooks never get to meet their diners. Home cooks practice basic sanitary measures, aware that there is no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 via food. Still, delivery volunteers wear masks and gloves and practice social distancing during their home-cooked drop-offs.

In his home kitchen with his baby looking on, David Brazil has been focusing on cooking New Orleans staples: red beans and rice, traditionally eaten on Mondays. He’s hoping to make food that’s “nutritious, flavorful, and not boring.”

“One of my basic questions is, ‘Would I eat this? How can I make this in a way people are gonna like?’” he says. “I’m vegetarian, but I add smoked sausage because people really like the flavor.” Other volunteers in the New Orleans network have even made KFC-style coleslaw with pulled pork, packaging it all in single-use clamshells before they disappear out the door.

Justice Singleton, another volunteer in New Orleans, wants to cook for the people of the city who have nourished her with so much “spirit, music, and food.” “As a person of color with respiratory issues, I didn’t know any other way to avoid this virus and volunteer my time,” she says. “Volunteering to cook is an absolute joy and distraction from the world at large.”

While there is no evidence of coronavirus transmission from food or food packaging, some mutual aid organizations have decided to avoid distributing home-cooked meals out of extreme caution. But Brazil believes that the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus from food packaging “pales in comparison to the risks of being black in America.” African Americans are contracting the virus and dying at disproportionately higher rates. Home-cooked meals can provide real support and a sense of solidarity for communities deeply affected by the disease.

For volunteers, the instinct to get into the kitchen is also helping unhoused peoples, whose need for pre-cooked meals is more crucial than ever. The COVID-19 crisis has meant that community groups serving homeless or curbside communities have needed to shift their meal preparation from on-site to inside the homes of volunteers to maximize social distancing. Dayton Andrews with the United Front Against Displacement in Oakland says this means switching from outdoor barbecue gatherings to large-batch pasta and soups cooked in volunteers’ kitchens, then distributed at large campsites, many under overpasses, in West Oakland, California.

Before March, hardly any of these spreadsheets, Facebook groups, or Signal chats bringing people together existed. Mutual aid has long been central to the missions of many radical activist groups, such as Food Not Bombs, which has been cooking and distributing meals to the hungry for 35 years, and is adept at identifying needs in communities not covered by established charitable organizations such as Meals on Wheels or homeless support groups. Now that such nonprofits are expecting a dramatic surge in need in the coming weeks, this new wave of mutual aid organizing hopes to catch some of the millions more who will suddenly find themselves in serious need.

I have decided, through texts with a network of engaged friends in the Bay Area, that if the chain of mutual aid can somehow get a steady supply of flour to me, I can pump out sourdough loaves, bagels, and English muffins to be distributed through our own support network for the duration of the quarantine. Last week, I had a strange sense of pride and communion pulsing through my fingers as I kneaded Montreal-style bagel dough. Who in the East Bay is going to eat these?, I thought. I really hope it helps them get through another rough morning in self-isolation. I thought of the empty bread shelves at the supermarket, and how my work was going to become someone’s staple, not a treat. I felt useful.

I’ve already done a bunch of porch swaps with friends and internet acquaintances, packaging loaves in zip-locks with nitrile gloves, leaving them on my steps, and finding homemade super-dirty martinis (my favorite) and funky tepache in return. I will start to cook for three — not just me and my partner — and leave out the meals on others’ stoops with the same care and delicacy as with my swap friends.

Others are approaching mutual aid from the grow site. At a drop-off point in West Oakland, Anders Olson of Olson Farms is now placing boxes of fresh produce as part of its new “socially-distant CSA.” On Friday mornings, the boxes are free for whoever needs them. “Even with social distancing,” says Olson, “people are getting to know their neighbors and communities more than ever, and we are realizing that the more apparent the crisis becomes, the more dependent we will all be on each other.”

Brooke Marino, an Oakland resident and community organizer, has taken up Olson’s distribution of free seedlings as well to promote community resilience. She hopes that she and her housemates can grow a surplus to distribute to neighbors in need in the coming months.

The extraordinary organizing happening online and at our doorsteps to reroute food to those in need are clear examples of what Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell calls “the possibility of paradise” in times of disaster. If there’s one bright spot to this public health crisis, it is the potential shift in what people see as politically possible — and radical foodways are one.

On a recent Zoom call with the Mutual Aid Brigade in Milan, Marino says the fellow organizers’ grocery drop-offs are a lifeline in the utterly locked-down city, and that inspires the work on the ground in Oakland: “It’s sobering to see where we could be in the coming months, but this is an unprecedented opportunity to organize our communities.”

Brittany Helena Young is a writer and PhD candidate in geography living in Berkeley, California.